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The Best (and Worst) Nail Care Tools for Classical Guitarists 

 March 25, 2024

By  Kale Good

Classical Guitarists always strive to perfect their fingernail shape and smoothness, all while fighting broken and chipping nails. However, only some classical guitarists know that some standard nail filing tools and techniques can make a huge difference in your tone, nail strength, and nail health. 

This article will briefly summarize what nail files do, highlight the pros and cons of the most common nail care materials, and give an essential nail care tip to help improve your nail strength. 

Nail Filing = Nail Sanding

To understand the benefits and pitfalls of the different nail filing tools, you must know that you're sanding your nail any time you shape or polish it (aka buff, smooth, shine). 

There are a few concepts to understand about sanding. First is grit: the higher the grit, the smoother the sandpaper (and the smoother the sandpaper, the smoother the final result of the sanding). The second is sharpness; a sharper sanding material will cut, while a duller sanding material will tear. 

When I was younger, I apprenticed with an auto body repair man who taught me the basics of getting a perfect finish on a car's paint job. I still think about this when I shape my nails. 

First, you start with very coarse sandpaper (low grit), which can make the significant cuts that get the major imperfections out of the paint job as quickly as possible. However, it leaves the entire vehicle covered with scratches! 

The trick to "removing" those scratches is using finer and finer sandpaper (higher grit) until the scratches are so minor they can't be seen by the naked eye. 

Guitarists do the same thing with their nails. They start with a rough or course shaping tool and end with multiple stages of buffing/polishing/smoothing. Through this process, classical guitarists make smaller and smaller scratches in their nails until they get smooth enough that you can't hear them. 

The Importance of Sharpness: Water Infiltration

A dull and/or soft abrasive material will tear your nail, whereas a sharp abrasive will cut it. You can visualize this by imagining a small tree branch that is torn off vs. a small tree branch that is cut off. The torn branch will have frayed ends, and the cut branch will have a smooth edge. 

Having a frayed edge is terrible for your nails. Frayed edges allow a much larger surface area for water to get into your nail. This causes the nail to expand and break the bonds between the keratin layers of the nail. Over time, this will lead to delamination of your nail (when a layer of nail sloughs off). 

(Not-so) Fun Fact: Nails can absorb 1,000 times more water than skin. About ⅓rd of their weight in water. Water absorption damages the structure of the nail. 

In fact, if you experience a lot of delamination (separation of the layers of the nail, flaking off of the top part), you may find that your nail strength improves if you improve the quality of your nail care tools and routine. 

Tip: Avoid nail hardeners (which make nails harder, which isn't necessarily good). Instead, use nail strengtheners, but still choose carefully; many contain formaldehyde and other chemicals damaging to the nail.

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Nail Shaping Tools

Every Classical Guitarist's nail care routine begins with shaping the nail. Shaping involves taking off a lot of material and thus requires a rougher abrasive (courser or lower grit). 

One of the worst products you can use for your nails is in this category. Unfortunately, it's also cheap and common. Avoid it at all costs. 

Tip: When shaping your nails, follow one of my favorite adages: "Let the tool do the work." Use gentle pressure and light strokes; avoid pressing hard into the nail.

It may feel natural (and faster) to use a back-and-forth motion while you shape your nail. However, cutting your nail in two directions increases fraying. Shape your nails by moving in only one direction to decrease fraying and delamination.

Emery Boards

The Worst Thing You Can Do For Your Nails. 

Emery boards are cheap and familiar and the worst thing to happen to classical guitarists' fingernails since bowling (I stopped bowling; I always break my thumbnail). 

An emery board is a backing board made of cardboard or foam with the abrasive stone emery glued to it. 

You can feel how rough it is when you run your finger over an emery board. In fact, on a microscopic level, the emery stones can vary significantly from very small to quite large. This inconsistency means that a few larger grit chunks of emery will be responsible for the bulk of the nail-shaping process. For this reason, they are given the nickname "Nail Gougers." Additionally, the emery is also soft relative to other standard abrasives. 

While emery boards can quickly shape your nails, they have many downsides. Cardboard-based emery boards are too flimsy for the precise shaping needed by guitarists. The softness and unevenness of the abrasive emery stone means that the edge of your nail will end up torn, frayed, and vulnerable to water infiltration. Because they're so coarse and aggressive, these can do much damage very fast. They are to be avoided at all costs. 

Metal (Diamond) Nail Files

Better

While the rest of the nail-growing world calls these "Diamond Files," classical guitarists are likelier to call them Metal Files. 

Diamond Files are made by gluing diamond dust to metal. Diamond dust is very hard and much more consistent in size than emery stone. Because of this, it does a much better job of cutting the nail than an emery board would. Rather than having a few larger chunks make big cuts (as an emery board would do), a diamond file has many small chunks make small cuts. A diamond file reduces the surface area available for water infiltration by making smaller cuts. 

The smaller chunks and the harder material mean that a diamond file leaves your nails much healthier than an emery board. 

Diamond files are also incredibly durable and readily available at any pharmacy. 

Tip: Over time, diamond (metal) and crystal (glass) files will start to feel dull. Usually, this is due to swarf buildup. Swarf is the term for the dust created when sanding. It can get stuck between the grit on the sanding surface. Wash the file in soapy water to remove the swarf; it will perform like new.

Glass (Crystal) Nail files

Best

Glass files, known as crystal files, are the best option for classical guitarists. This is tempered glass, which is much more durable than regular glass. 

Glass files entered the nail care market in the past 20 years. They were first created by a company in the Czech Republic that used acid to etch an abrasive pattern into the glass. A quality glass file will never wear out; the abrasive can not come "unglued" like a diamond file. 

Glass files are also finer than diamond files, meaning they do less damage to your nails. However, they're also very sharp, so they can cut quickly. This allows for quick shaping and the healthiest possible nail. 

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Nail Buffing 

Fortunately, once you move on to nail buffing (sometimes called polishing or smoothing), most products at your local pharmacy will work well enough in a pinch. Still, silicon carbide is a better choice of abrasive. 

Tip: To see if your nails are smooth enough for playing, put them on the strings at the 12th fret and slide them up and down the strings. If you hear scratching, your nails aren't smooth enough. 

You can also put them over the soundhole and slide them; however, this area of the strings often develops scratches from playing (especially with unpolished nails). If you hear scratching at the soundhole but not at the 12th fret, your fingernails are smooth, but your strings must be changed.

Generic Nail Buffer

Good

Any generic 4-sided nail buffer will work for polishing nails in a pinch. However, be aware that the coursest grits on these files are made with emery, so only use the finer sides to polish your nails. 

Silicone Carbide

Silicone Carbide is an ideal abrasive for polishing nails. It's incredibly hard, very sharp, and relatively cheap. With a proper polish using Silicone Carbide products, you can get the edge of your nails to shine like glass, giving you an amazingly smooth and "glassy" tone. 

Open Coat 500-grit Silicone Carbide Sandpaper

Better

This sandpaper is a step up from a generic version of pharmacy nail buffers. While it is much more difficult to find than generic sandpaper (which uses a different abrasive, aluminum oxide sandpaper, which isn't suitable for nail filing), this sandpaper has multiple properties that make it a solid choice. 

First, the backing paper and adhesive used are flexible yet firm enough that the sandpaper can be folded and bent without the silicone carbide abrasive falling off or the paper cracking and tearing. This means that you can bend and shape the sandpaper into a small, sturdy square that can be tucked under a nail to get a smooth edge over every part of the nail that the string touches. 

Second, over time, silicone carbide sandpaper's friability (breakability) orks to the classical guitarist's advantage. With repeated use, the silicone carbide abrasive will break. While this sounds bad, the silicon carbide remains sharp after breaking. However, it will now be a finer grit since it has broken. 

This means that a brand-new piece of sandpaper can be used as the first polishing stage, and silicone carbide sandpaper that has been used repeatedly (and broken down) can be used as the final polishing stage. Some guitarists even maintain different "wear levels" on a single sheet of sandpaper. This allows them to do their polishing routine with only a single sheet of sandpaper. 

While Silicone Carbide Sandpaper is an excellent choice, I found it to wear down faster than I liked. Also, I'm not too fond of the ambiguity of guesstimating how much polishing my nail is getting on an old piece of silicon carbide. 

Fortunately, there's Micromesh. 

Micromesh

Best

Micromesh also uses silicone carbide as it's abrasive. However, Micromesh uses a thick fabric as its backing rather than a piece of sandpaper. 

This fabric is thick enough to provide padding and flexibility while sanding. Like your head resting on a pillow, the Micromesh will conform to the shape and "fit around it" when you press in. When this happens, all the sharp edges of the silicone carbide will point their cutting edge straight at your nail, resulting in a smoother and faster cut. 

The flexibility of Micromesh's backing fabric produces a wide range of other benefits that are very interesting. Notably, it will last 7-15 times longer than sandpaper. This helps to offset its higher cost. Additionally, because it lasts so much longer without the crystals breaking down, it's much more practical to use different grits of micromesh to achieve the final polish needed for smooth playing. This provides much more control, especially when compared to using a worn-down piece of sandpaper and guesstimating how smooth your nails will get. 

Like a crystal or metal file, Micromesh can be rinsed with water to remove the swarf and revive its cutting abilities. 

Micromesh comes in both incredibly convenient files and cloth swaths. The files are convenient. The cloth swaths provide more customization, and you can replace only the grits you've worn out. On the downside, you must provide your own backing material. A small foam block is an excellent backer for Micromesh, giving even more cushioning to help create a well-rounded nail. 

Kale Good


Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

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